The Georgia Supreme Court set aside convictions Monday against a Dodge County man who was found guilty of animal cruelty and intimidating court officers in 2014.
In a unanimous opinion, the court ruled that Lister W. Harrell’s “acts of intimidation against court officers did not constitute ‘true threats’ of violence and therefore were protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech,” according to a case summary prepared by the court.
Contact Monday after the opinion’s release, Macon attorney Tom Jarriel said the legal fight has been “pretty much a nightmare” for his client, Harrell.
Oconee Circuit District Attorney Tim Vaughn said he plans to file a motion seeking reconsideration, arguing that a threat of violence isn’t necessarily required.
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In 2013, Harrell was a landlord who had a tenant who refused to pay rent or to vacate Harrell’s property, Jarriel said.
Harrell filed a notice to have the tenant thrown out, but he also cut off the utilities for the property. Cutting off the utilities is a citable offense punishable by a maximum $500 fine, Jarriel said.
At some point, Harrell was arrested on the charge and when he failed to show up for court, a bench warrant was issued.
From there, according to the case summary:
In April 2013, Harrell called Dodge County Superior Court Clerk Rhett Walker, who later testified that Harrell had threatened him, seeking to have the warrant lifted.
Deputy Chief Clerk Tammy Graham also testified that she discovered from friends and family that Harrell had posted a false statement on Facebook that Graham had engaged in group sex with him and others. It also was alleged that Harrell had threatened to provide access to a video of the group sex -- which didn’t exist -- if the warrant wasn’t lifted.
Harrell also allegedly called Shirley Webb, a former girlfriend and the mother of his children, and left two messages, one of which reportedly accused her of having group sex and threatened to release a video of it on the Internet.
The two previously had been engaged in litigation over domestic issues.
Webb’s current boyfriend testified at Harrell’s trial that after hearing the voice mail, he went to Webb’s mailbox and found a dead cat stuffed inside. While at the mailbox, Harrell drove by and pointed at the mailbox.
During his trial, Harrell testified he didn’t kill a cat or put a dead cat in the mailbox. He admitted calling Graham, making the Facebook postings and lying about Graham, but he denied any threats or intimidation.
A jury found Harrell guilty of misdemeanor cruelty to animals and two counts of intimidating a court officer in June 2014. He was sentenced to six years in prison followed by six years on probation.
In Monday’s ruling, the high court ruled that nothing in Harrell’s statements to Graham or Walker threatened an “unlawful act of violence,” according to the summary.
Contacted Monday, Vaughn said a Facebook threat can be a form of intimidation, especially in a small community where most everyone knows everyone.
The court also agreed with Harrell’s assertion that the trial court erred in denying a motion to give him separate trials for the animal cruelty and intimidation charges because there was no connection between the two.
Harrell has been held in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections since June 2014, according to prison records.
Although his conviction has been overturned, he still faces a pending aggravated stalking charge in Dodge County, Jarriel said.
To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398 or find her on Twitter@awomackmacon.com.